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KEOHANE, NYE - Power and Interdependence, Cap II

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One’s assumptions about world politics profoundly affect what one sees and how
one constructs theories to explain events. We believe that the assumptions of politi-
cal realists, whose theories dominated the postwar period, are often an inadequate
basis for analyzing the politics of interdependence. The realist assumptions about
world politics can be seen as defining an extreme set of conditions or ideal type. One
could also imagine very different conditions. In this chapter, we shall construct
another ideal type, the opposite of realism. We call it complex interdependence. After
establishing the differences between realism and complex interdependence, we shall
argue that complex interdependence sometimes comes closer to reality than does
realism. When it does, traditional explanations of change in international regimes
become questionable and the search for new explanatory models becomes more
For political realists, international politics, like all other politics, is a struggle for
power but, unlike domestic politics, a struggle dominated by organized violence. In
the words of the most influential postwar textbook, “All history shows that nations
active in international politics are continuously preparing for, actively involved in,
or recovering from organized violence in the form of war.”1 Three assumptions are
integral to the realist vision. First, states as coherent units are the dominant actors
in world politics. This is a double assumption: states are predominant; and they act
as coherent units. Second, realists assume that force is a usable and effective instru-
ment of policy. Other instruments may also be employed, but using or threatening
force is the most effective means of wielding power. Third, partly because of their
second assumption, realists assume a hierarchy of issues in world politics, headed by
questions of military security: the “high politics” of military security dominates the
“low politics” of economic and social affairs.
These realist assumptions define an ideal type of world politics. They allow us to
imagine a world in which politics is continually characterized by active or potential
conflict among states, with the use of force possible at any time. Each state attempts to
Realism and Complex
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20 Chapter 2 Realism and Complex Interdependence
defend its territory and interests from real or perceived threats. Political integration
among states is slight and lasts only as long as it serves the national interests of
the most powerful states. Transnational actors either do not exist or are politically
unimportant. Only the adept exercise of force or the threat of force permits states
to survive, and only while statesmen succeed in adjusting their interests, as in a well-
functioning balance of power, is the system stable.
Each of the realist assumptions can be challenged. If we challenge them all
simultaneously, we can imagine a world in which actors other than states participate
directly in world politics, in which a clear hierarchy of issues does not exist, and in
which force is an ineffective instrument of policy. Under these conditions—which
we call the characteristics of complex interdependence—one would expect world
politics to be very different than under realist conditions.
We will explore these differences in the next section of this chapter. We do not
argue, however, that complex interdependence faithfully reflects world political reality.
Quite the contrary: both it and the realist portrait are ideal types. Most situations will
fall somewhere between these two extremes. Sometimes, realist assumptions will be
accurate, or largely accurate, but frequently complex interdependence will provide a
better portrayal of reality. Before one decides what explanatory model to apply to a
situation or problem, one will need to understand the degree to which realist or
complex interdependence assumptions correspond to the situation.
Complex interdependence has three main characteristics:
1. Multiple channels connect societies, including: informal ties between govern-
mental elites as well as formal foreign office arrangements; informal ties among
nongovernmental elites (face-to-face and through telecommunications); and
transnational organizations (such as multinational banks or corporations).
These channels can be summarized as interstate, transgovernmental, and
transnational relations. Interstate relations are the normal channels assumed by
realists. Transgovernmental applies when we relax the realist assumption that
states act coherently as units; transnational applies when we relax the assump-
tion that states are the only units.
2. The agenda of interstate relationships consists of multiple issues that are not
arranged in a clear or consistent hierarchy. This absence of hierarchy among issues
means, among other things, that military security does not consistently domi-
nate the agenda. Many issues arise from what used to be considered domestic
policy, and the distinction between domestic and foreign issues becomes
blurred. These issues are considered in several government departments (not
just foreign offices), and at several levels. Inadequate policy coordination on
these issues involves significant costs. Different issues generate different coali-
tions, both within governments and across them, and involve different degrees
of conflict. Politics does not stop at the waters’ edge.
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The Characteristics of Complex Interdependence 21
3. Military force is not used by governments toward other governments within the
region, or on the issues, when complex interdependence prevails. It may,
however, be important in these governments’ relations with governments
outside that region, or on other issues. Military force could, for instance, be
irrelevant to resolving disagreements on economic issues among members of an
alliance, yet at the same time be very important for that alliance’s political and
military relations with a rival bloc. For the former relationships this condition
of complex interdependence would be met; for the latter, it would not.
Traditional theories of international politics implicitly or explicitly deny the
accuracy of these three assumptions. Traditionalists are therefore tempted also to
deny the relevance of criticisms based on the complex interdependence ideal type.
We believe, however, that our three conditions are fairly well approximated on
some global issues of economic and ecological interdependence and that they
come close to characterizing the entire relationship between some countries. One
of our purposes here is to prove that contention. In subsequent chapters we shall
examine complex interdependence in oceans policy and monetary policy and in
the relationships of the United States to Canada and Australia. In this chapter,
however, we shall try to convince you to take these criticisms of traditional
assumptions seriously.
Multiple Channels
A visit to any major airport is a dramatic way to confirm the existence of multiple
channels of contact among advanced industrial countries; there is a voluminous
literature to prove it.2 Bureaucrats from different countries deal directly with one
another at meetings and on the telephone as well as in writing. Similarly,
nongovernmental elites frequently get together in the normal course of business, in
organizations such as the Trilateral Commission, and in conferences sponsored by
private foundations.
In addition, multinational firms and banks affect both domestic and interstate
relations. The limits on private firms, or the closeness of ties between government
and business, vary considerably from one society to another; but the participation of
large and dynamic organizations, not controlled entirely by governments, has
become a normal part of foreign as well as domestic relations.
These actors are important